A Throw of Dice (1929)

Director: Franz Osten

I’ve been known to say that some films are best appreciated within their particular historical context, but A Throw of Dice offers a particular challenge to that notion because, well, what actually is the context here? It’s a German/Indian co-production (with some British money thrown in too) from the end of the silent era, so how do we view it… indeed, how can we view it? I’ve read that only about a dozen Indian silent features survive in any part, and at least three of those—including this one—are actually by the German director Franz Osten. The film does, perhaps inevitably, bear certain stylistic similarity with European films of the time, of course; what I wonder is how much like other “actual” Indian films of that time it was. Did Indian silent cinema commonly exploit the sort of technical and material resources Osten clearly had available? I don’t know and I rather doubt there’s any way of knowing now.

The story involves two kings, Ranjit and Sohan; the latter wants the former’s crown, and also the young woman he loves, and when attempted murder and blackmail don’t work for him, Sohan decides he must exploit Ranjit’s passion for gambling instead. This story apparently originates in the Mahabharata, although I suppose there’s nothing inherently “Indian” about it; that sort of lust for power and control is probably universal… but it not only made me wonder how it would’ve fit in among Indian films of the period, but were Indian audiences even the “real” target. Cos the film struck me as being like the sort of thing Fritz Lang and Joe May were doing in Germany a decade earlier, that sort of exotic extravaganza a la The Indian Tomb… although Osten had evidently absorbed certain technical developments made since then and perhaps absorbed better budgets as well; supposedly there are 10,000 extras used in the film, which I could believe, and the film is remarkably lavish and big-scale in production terms for something that only clocks in at 70-odd minutes. Part of me wishes I could just watch films without contemplating issues like this and “just enjoy them” like alleged normal people—cos the film is decently entertaining one way or the other, helped by those handsome production values and good surviving print quality—but then again I suppose that sort of contemplation is part of my enjoyment of this sort of thing…

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